Written by Katie Glassman, Edited by Adam Kulakow
Not long after I started playing in 1988, people called me a fiddler. And I liked that. In fact, it became the central part of my identity as I began traveling to fiddle contests around the country and sought out fiddle legends to learn from (many of the greats were still with us when I started). By the time I got to college, I felt ready to push further and explore the world of classical and jazz. Of course, a push like that entailed 4 hours of practice for each teacher in each class in each genre. I developed a routine: practice from 6 am – 10 am, go to classes all day, then it was back to the practice room from 10 pm – 2 am. The good news is that this actually worked. I improved. A lot. And what a rush that was: my biggest high came from musical progress, and I rode the practice train hard, even got addicted to compliments from my teachers (this was before the movie “Whiplash,” but yeah, I had one of those teachers – and he liked my work ethic). So sure, life was great, and giving up sleep gave me some extra time and so did skipping a meal or two. Why not? It was all about having time to practice. (Paying bills was another thing, as I found one day when my car got booted from unpaid parking tickets.) But practicing was my favorite thing to do and if that meant my car got a boot, well, so be it. And that was pretty much the story of my life from the time I picked up a fiddle until I was 22.
I graduated from the University of Colorado and put my fiddle in its case. If I could have locked that case up and thrown away the key, I probably would have. Instead, it went in the closet. That is, until I moved to Idaho, where I joined a band. As a fiddler? Not exactly. In fact, not at all. The fiddle stayed in its case and that was fine by me. I was now the electric guitar player in a Beach Boys cover band called The Wilson Project and I was also experiencing something I had forgotten about — and that was called having fun. Sadly, the money in Beach Boys cover music just wasn’t there in Boise in 2004. So, the fiddle came out of its case, and soon enough I was teaching 50 fiddle students a week. All the while, I told myself and everyone who’d listen that “I quit fiddle, it just doesn’t inspire me anymore.” And then one day a close college friend (Adam Ravelle) said that the world would end if I quit, and besides, he just couldn’t imagine it. When he happened to notice that I was playing my fiddle hours and hours every week teaching, he had the good sense to let me continue to think that I had “quit.” He knew that I was still “a fiddler,” but he also knew I was a bit burnt out from pushing so hard and so that whole musical identity thing needed a break for a while. I’d call myself a fiddler again when I was ready.
Teaching worked out. I bought a house in Boise and things were looking up. And then things got tragic: two previous tenants in my house died, and soon after that my neighbor got killed by a chainsaw in a lumber accident. Life was feeling very strange and sad. And just when I started thinking I really could use a change, I got one. I got invited to study jazz violin in France with my hero, a protégé of Stephane Grappelli named Didier Lockwood. Helpfully, my house had already doubled in value since I bought it. So within three weeks of that invitation, I got a home loan advance, rented my house, then put the rest of my life in storage and drove my cats to Denver where they could spend a year at my parents’ house. The night before I left, my dad asked if I could even string together a sentence in French. He knew I’d studied Spanish in school and pretty much blew that off to focus on music. Hoping I’d at least learn how to ask where a bathroom is, he gave me the Pimsler CDs and sure enough, I soon was able to say, “Ou est la toilette, s’il vous plait?” His bigger question was what was my plan once I got to France. Again, he knew the answer. I had no plan. Which also meant I had no place to live and limited language prospects, despite the Pimsler CDs. So he got me a hotel in Paris for three days and pretty much prayed for my survival. Miraculously, that actually worked. I got a train ticket out of Paris and found a small apartment two blocks from Didier’s jazz school in the small town Dammarie-Les-Lys for one year. And over the course of that year, I learned French, I learned jazz violin, and I even learned how to become ok with the cheek to cheek kissing greetings twice a day all day with like 58 guys who were studying jazz too. Amid all that kissing, I almost didn’t notice the housing crisis of 2008 that put my house into foreclosure back in Boise. C’est la vie…
Forget the foreclosure crisis. My inspiration for the fiddle was back. All it took was a year with a jazz great, a lot of quality red wine and all that kissing (despite my germaphobia). It was time to get back to America, back to epic practice sessions, and back on stage. I decided to come home to Denver, rented a small house in a hip neighborhood and loved the vibe. But then the vibe changed. Neighbors on both sides of me died. Amid those two tragedies, I developed a 3-inch cyst on my right wrist. It hurt too much to play fiddle and doctors told me that I may not be able to play fiddle again. So, I took out my 1964 Gibson J-45 and started writing songs. People hear those songs today and think they’re happy tunes. Well, they’re not. They’re all sad. I wrote on my pedal organ too. Yes, those songs are also sad.
Fast forward two years and I recorded an all-originals album called “Snaphot,” which was indeed a snapshot of the life I just described above. Somehow that cyst had dissolved, and I was playing all the time. Only things were different now, I was playing with joy. Getting back in musical shape felt so good, singing felt so good, songwriting felt so good. All of it. And the whole journey took me back to where I started: the fiddle. I’m a singer, I’m a songwriter, I’m a teacher, I’m a guitar player, I’m a piano player… a musician. But really, I’m a fiddler. And that goes way back now.
Music has led my life to so many incredible people and places: it’s my identity, my passion and my connection to the world. But it’s also led me to a simple truth, if you play an instrument or sing, you’re a musician. You might be a great maestro in a world class symphony, or you might just be strumming a few chords in your living room. But if there’s music in you, then no matter what, it will always be there – and it will always be there for you. In these tough times, I hope that your music can lift you up and help you remember who you are. It does that for me every day.
Here’s a song I wrote in 2009 about my fiddle called Takin’ My Baby Along. I’ve included the MP3 and the chart, in case you’d like to learn it. The young Nashville fiddle star, Billy Contreras played twin fiddles with me on this one.